Success characteristics of inspirational and innovative leaders; thoughts from Sandy Kurtz, MD

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Among life’s greatest treasures is having the opportunity to work or live alongside someone inspiring, innovative and successful – a leader who encourages the troops to set the bar high and cares enough to educate, mentor, propel and support. Is there a recipe for such a persona?

With 35-plus years of experience as a physician leader (16 years in administrative roles), we asked Sandy Kurtz, MD, Vice President at Southwind, a division of The Advisory Board Company, for thoughts. He not only reflected upon literature and other executives worthy of mention, but also disclosed tactics he has incorporated throughout his career in roles including president, medical director and chief medical officer.

Tyler & Company: “Innovation” is buzzing these days. How do you encourage people to think outside of the box?

Dr. Kurtz: One important thing you learn in life is that there’s more than one way to arrive at a satisfactory solution. As an administrator, I asked every subordinate admin to provide two to three remedies for a given challenge. In terms of moving people toward a thought process, this is a good rule. Why? For most, providing one solution is easy. However, since you’re forced to look at problems in different ways, providing two or three solutions generally offers innovative breakthroughs.

Tyler & Company: In your view, what constitutes a good leader?

Dr. Kurtz: Professors at business schools dedicate their entire lives trying to educate us on what leadership is and how to be a good leader. My views are based on many of their thoughts and personal experience. Some people reading this probably have better interpretations of how to approach this topic. My hope is that readers find one or two things useful, and that they complement their outlook.

Leadership is important for the success of any organization and requires professional and personal enrichment. In “Leadership That Gets Results1,” Daniel Goleman applies leadership styles to four capabilities of emotional intelligence – the capacity to manage ourselves and our relationships. They are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and social skill. Jim Collins’Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t2speaks to “level-five leadership.” And, who can forget Peter Drucker and all of the management wisdom that he gave American businesses over his profound career?

In what I’ve experienced, successful leaders are, above all else, successful managers. Likely the best leaders we can find are those whom have also mastered how to be happy. They have found a work-life balance right for them.

Tyler & Company: What makes a leader effective and successful? 

Dr. Kurtz: First, let’s define “successful.” Brad Smart, PhD, who created a model leadership development program for Jack Welch at General Electric, described 50 behavioral competencies A Players have mastered in Topgrading (How to Hire, Coach and Keep A Players)3.

For reference, an A Player is someone within the top 10 percent of “available” talent at the proposed salary level. (Being in this elite makes for a good, personal goal.) Availability includes location and industry. Sometimes there is a lack of talent within that sliver, and it merits discussion about realistic salary levels, job description, supply and expectations.

Smart’s 50 behavioral competencies all contribute to developing effective leader-ship. They include, but are not limited to, intellect, personal and interpersonal relations, motivation, and additional leadership competencies like vision, change leadership and inspiring follower-ship. Despite the dozens of behavioral competencies present in effective leaders, Smart believes three are essential for today’s leaders to be successful –  1) resourcefulness; 2) ability to Topgrade and coach; and 3) self-awareness. To the list we must add a fourth – collaboration.

  1. Resourcefulness: Today’s world is riddled with obstacles that require us to go around, under and over to be successful. Doing this well takes a series of behavioral competencies. Frequently, out-of-the-box solutions must be uncovered.
  2. Topgrading: This is the practice of hiring A Players (top 10 percent), redeploying B and C Players as necessary, and then coaching your team. B Players are those employees who fall within the next 15th percentile (11 to 25 percent) of available talent at the proposed salary. C Players constitute the remaining 75 percent.Collins described this in his own way:

    “In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with ‘where’ but with ‘who.’ They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction. Successful leaders and managers are constantly Topgrading and coaching their teams to consist of 100 percent A Players.” 

  3. Self-awareness: It is critical for leaders to be aware of their shortcomings and develop a personal improvement plan that they loyally implement and follow. Frequently part of that plan are 360-degree evaluations.
  4. Collaboration: The most important skill in the current environment is collaboration. As Ram Charan describes, it is required to get functional silos and profit-and-loss centers aligned for patient requirements. Collaboration is required for integration, the ability to synthesize varying points of view, convergence on the right trade-offs, and finding the right solution accepted by key stakeholders.

Tyler & Company: Which behavioral competencies can nosedive a career? 

Dr. Kurtz: For our own development and health, we should be aware of career derailers. These issues sink our personal careers if we can’t find ways to work out of them. Below are behavioral competencies and their corresponding derailers.

  • Topgrading: Not selecting enough A Players and/or redeploying B and C players. Clear signs are too many mishires, and the wrong ratio of A, B and C players on a team. A refusal to upgrade may stem from a leader being fearful of hiring someone with more experience or knowledge than he/she has.When interviewing, I learn a candidate’s Topgrading tolerance by asking how many direct reports he/she has. I then ask the candidate to categorize his/her direct reports (e.g., if they are A, B or C Players) over the time they have been employed. If B and C Players have not been redeployed after 90 days, I know the candidate does not Topgrade.

    Topgrading is extremely difficult; however, if you don’t create a team of A Players, your probability of success in today’s world drops significantly.

  • Resourcefulness: Being too passive, failing to create opportunities, or delegating upward.
  • Passion: Lacking drive and motivation; just going through the motions.
  • Integrity: Lying, breaking confidences or pushing legal boundaries too far.
  • Ambition: Being overly ambitious; aiming for the promotion vs. serving the organization.
  • Political astuteness: Being a dirty politician or backstabber.
  • Adaptability: Failing to adjust to reorganization; being overwhelmed; lacking skills or experience necessary to accomplish a complex role.
  • Team building: Inability to empower anyone; a “control freak” or old-fashioned autocrat.
  • Collaboration/team player: Building silos; working as if your department is the only one; failing to coordinate efforts across departments or service lines.
  • Track record: Failing to deliver results and offering excuses.

The main goal of personal development is improving weaknesses vs. improving strengths. Leaders who climb the corporate ladder and escalate their careers enjoy the fewest weaknesses. Cycling to the beginning of this article – being a top-notch leader really is about developing the skills to be a successful and effective manager, and a successful person.

Tyler & Company sincerely appreciates the thoughts of Sandy Kurtz, MD, Vice President at Southwind, a division of The Advisory Board Company dedicated to helping health systems improve the performance of their physician enterprise and hospital–physician alignment.

1 Goleman, D. (March – April 2000). “Leadership that gets results.” Harvard Business Review. Massachusetts: Harvard Business Publishing.

 Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

 Smart, Ph.D., B. D. (2005).  Topgrading (How to hire, coach and keep A Players). Texas: Pritchett, LP.

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